Been Everywhere, Seen Nothing
This time last year I was driving—or, more accurately, being driven—down California’s Highway 1 by a man I had had a disastrous relationship with some years prior, followed by three years of radio silence. I, a recent MFA graduate, was looking for work and he, a perennially unemployed artist, was awaiting his big break, but financial concerns didn’t stop us from slinging back cocktail after cocktail in San Francisco, and the future was no hurdle in the promises we made each other on the way to LAX. A few months later things would fall apart in a way I should have predicted, but that evening, as the sun sank into the ocean and the sky outside the passenger-side window turned black we could have been anything—together, or as individuals—the world seemed poised, waiting for us to make our next move.
Are road trips inherently built on fantasy, fueled by the pursuit of possibility and the belief that anything could lie out there, just ahead of the dash? Is it unfair, really; is the deck stacked against the passengers, when the drivers seem to not only control the trip, but create it, conjuring up windswept dunes right when we need to get out and stretch our legs, or the Artichoke Capital of the World when some lightness is needed to break unresolved inter-vehicular tensions? How can you not love such a magician, how can you not trick yourself into buying his sleight of hand?
In Bonnie Nadzam’s strange novel, Lamb, David Lamb’s father has just died and his wife left him when he is approached by Tommie, a skinny, freckled girl goaded by her friends into bumming a cigarette off him in a Chicago parking lot. Instead of shooing her off with a lecture, as any responsible adult would do, Lamb suggests they get revenge on the other girls by pretending that he’s kidnapping her. He drops Tommie at home safe and sound but returns the next day to the same parking lot, and Tommie returns, too. A cautious friendship grows between nervous David (who tells Tommie his name is Gary) and compliant Tommie. He gives her a metal pencil sharpener as a gift, small enough for her to tuck in a pocket but heavy enough to remind her of him, and she writes Gs inside her notebooks but tells no one what they mean. Soon they’re on the road together, driving from Chicago to a cabin Lamb owns in the Rocky Mountains, a trip he proposes to initially last a week but that blossoms into three.
It’s hard to read Lamb without thinking of that other middle-aged man/questionably consenting young girl road trip novel, though Nadzam, in an interview, denies any similarities. And David Lamb is no Humbert Humbert. For while H. H. felt no shame for his love of Dolores, justifiable either in the pursuit of the aesthetic, or because his nymphette was an accomplice in her seduction, Lamb constantly seeks reassurance from Tommie that she is willing to go along on this adventure, that he isn’t making her do anything she’s uncomfortable with.
He put two fingers beneath her chin and drew her face toward his own…. “Tommie. I’m sort of out of familiar territory here. Do you understand?”
“You feel a little bit the same way, don’t you? Please say yes or no. Please do me that courtesy.”
“Yes you do?”
“Yes I do.”
“Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“I think so.”
But what eleven-year-old has the foresight to know what’s good for her and what isn’t, plus the confidence to stand up to a man four times her age? And Lamb’s voice dominates the narrative, his anxiety-riddled monologues needing only a quick affirmation from Tommie to continue. Throughout the trip he pitches her fantasies of her future life as a beautiful waitress with a ranch, taking care of him in his decrepit old age. Tommie is heartbreaking in her credulity of these dreams, both to readers and to Lamb himself.
What a man she rendered him, simply by being a girl who could be picked up and moved: what he wanted to be, what he ought to be, what was most intelligible and unplanned and true in him when he carried her out of her fettered world to this. How powerful she was as long as she asserted no will of her own.
Lamb’s persistent directing of Tommie in what to say and how to look both in public and private keep the novel relentlessly uncomfortable.
He took out a red cardboard quart of whole milk and filled the cups, then took the pillow off his own bed and propped her up, touching her shoulders and the back of her head. Arranging her just so. Then he put one plastic cup of milk in her hand.
“Let me see you drink that,” he said. “God, you look good. You look just like the perfect… little person.” … “I was really smart to get that milk.” He grinned. “It was just what you needed in that twin bed.”
Lamb’s manipulation of Tommie intensifies as his control over the situation slips, and the outside world peeks in through the cabin windows. Ultimately the road cannot provide the raw materials with which to remake the world, only the space in which to feed those fantasies for a short time. This life will remain what it is: one in which, upon return to Chicago, Lamb will be sought by law enforcement for taking an eleven-year-old girl away from her family, a crime no amount of new sweaters and fried-egg breakfasts will vindicate. And despite Lamb’s preoccupation with making sure Tommie isn’t hurt or damaged by the experience, he cannot control her interpretation of the event as she gets older. Reality conspires against the dreamers, who have no responsibility to anyone but each other, disregarding the concerns of mothers, mothers’ boyfriends, police, and nosy neighbors, such as the one that keeps coming by the cabin to check in on Lamb and his ward:
“Not much of a place for a girl.”
“I like it,” Tommie said.
“Well.” He gave her a thin smile. “Girl doesn’t get to choose where she lands, do she?”
Lamb is skeptical that Tommie will want much to do with him as she grows up, and my road partner sent me an e-mail after our trip that everything back home was, disappointingly, exactly as he’d left it. That I took this as a given and he as an outrage was mostly likely why we’d never work in a real, committed relationship. We can fantasize all we want, in the notime/noplace of the road, but all of the difficult relationships, the less than ideal lives, that propelled Lamb and Tommie toward each other eventually do call them, and all of us, home.
—Nora Fussner has an MFA in fiction writing from Brooklyn College. She now teaches English at Brooklyn College and Kingsborough Community College, and is working on a novel.